Only two districts in the Philadelphia region would be affected - Philadelphia and Chester Upland.
As is often the case in Harrisburg, the politics of the academic bankruptcy plan are complicated, especially with the hot-button issue of school choice involved. Ridge is a Republican working with a GOP majority in the House and Senate, but sentiments on the issue do not necessarily fall along party lines.
Senior Republican aides say the plan is practically a shoo-in to pass the House, where a majority of members are said to be sold on the idea of a limited school-choice program for children in schools that have failed demonstrably.
``I believe the governor's proposal will get strong support among both Republican and Democratic members of the House,'' House Majority Leader John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) said yesterday.
Perzel's spokesman, Stephen Drachler, said the governor's plan ``embraced one of the key recommendations of the House Urban Education Commission of last session.''
The commission, an effort engineered by Perzel and Rep. Dwight Evans (D. Phila.), issued a 1997 report that contained state takeover and choice provisions that are similar to what Ridge proposed yesterday.
Legislative aides say the Ridge proposal may face stronger opposition in the Senate.
House officials said the plan initially was met with skepticism from aides to Senate Majority Leader F. Joseph Loeper (R., Delaware).
But yesterday, Loeper offered qualified support for the idea.
``I think we have an opportunity to pass something in the Senate,'' Loeper said. ``It may not mirror what the governor laid out in his proposal. But I think there are 26 votes for education reform.''
Loeper's senior aide sounded less confident.
``There are an awful lot of pulls and tugs [to be made] on it,'' said Stephen C. MacNett, general counsel to Senate Republicans. `` . . . When you do something to gain one vote, you lose two in the process.''
Loeper and MacNett did not say what parts of the plan senators may want to change, or whether the choice component can survive.
The warm words for the plan contrast with the rather icy reception to the governor's more sweeping school voucher proposal, which he unveiled last month in his 1999-2000 budget.
That plan has little chance of passing, senior Republican aides said privately.
It would create a five-year pilot voucher program that would cost nearly $600 million. But in contrast to the plan presented yesterday, the proposal would provide vouchers to parents whose children currently are in private or parochial school - and has strong support from Catholic groups. It could result in significant state tax dollars being funneled into private and religious schools.
That concept has proven a tough sell in the legislature, many of whose members pay close heed to the views of teachers' unions and school board associations. The largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, opposes all forms of choice - and criticized Ridge's latest plan yesterday.
When it comes to the broader school choice plan, the House has been the problem for Ridge. The Senate passed a choice bill in 1991, but Ridge voucher proposals have failed twice in the lower chamber, and a third attempt in November never made it to the floor.
But aides to Perzel say House members are much more comfortable with choice if it is restricted to public school children stuck in low-performing schools.
Any enacted form of school choice that sent tax money flowing into religious schools would immediately be challenged on federal and state constitutional grounds, said Larry Frankel, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The U.S. Supreme Court in November let stand a lower court ruling upholding a choice program in Milwaukee. But Pennsylvania's appellate courts have never decided the issue, Frankel said.
Any state constitutional challenge would rely on a provision in the Pennsylvania Constitution that says: ``No money raised for the support of public schools in the Commonwealth shall be appropriated or used for the support of any sectarian school.''